Gay marriage and referendums

Dear Cardinal O’Brien,

I hear you have called on the Scottish government to hold a referendum on proposals to lift the ban on same-sex couples marrying, and you claim that a referendum would be justified because of intense public interest in the issue:

“The Scottish Government’s consultation on redefining marriage had three times more respondents than the consultation on the constitution, demonstrating clearly that far more people are concerned about fundamental matters of morality at the present time. Clearly, if it is sensible to hold a referendum on independence, it is crucial we have one on marriage. It is the only way the country can move forward on this issue. Let all those who have a view on this subject place their trust in the Scottish people and let Scotland decide.”

I suspect that what you have in mind is piggy-backing on the independence referendum in 2014 (or the EU membership referendum, which the Tories and UKIP are playing with) so that as well as asking “Do you think Scotland should be independent?” or whatever form of question we are to be asked, a second question on a separate slip is presented that I expect you would like to say:

“Marriage should continue to be defined as a life-long exclusive commitment between a man and a woman”

Who could disagree with that? I agree that marriage should continue to be defined in that way – it’s simply that I, along with a majority of the people in Scotland, think that marriage should also be defined as a life-long exclusive commitment between a man and a man, and between a woman and a woman.

Though John Deighan, parliamentary officer for the Catholic Church in Scotland, said

the vote on same-sex marriage should take precedence. “We would like to see it before the independence referendum,” he said. “From what we can see, this seems to be a higher priority for many people”.

The technique of demanding a referendum has worked very well for the anti-marriage groups in the US. (Incidentally, I hear you’re planning to ask for parish donations for your campaign on 26th August, and say you hope to get £100,000. The campaign has already spent that much already: where are you getting the money from, and do Catholics in Scotland really think this is a good way of spending Church funds?)

Being “against gay marriage” has become an effective shibboleth for American conservative Christians, but the reason this kind of question wins referenda across the US is not because the majority of people spontaneously think it would be wrong to let two men or two women stand up before a judge or a consenting minister of their faith and pledge their life-long commitment to each other.

Indeed, it has been universally shown wherever the ban on same-sex marriage is lifted, people who never thought about the issue look at the happy couples coming forward and think all the usual things people think and say at weddings:

  • Awwww
  • They’re so in love!
  • What a gorgeous dress!
  • Some men really do suit kilts… great legs!
  • A h-uile là sona dhuibh ‘s gun là idir dona dhuib!
  • Some men really don’t suit kilts… that one should have worn a suit.
  • May the best ye’ve ever seen, Be the warst ye’ll ever see. … May ye aye be jist as happy As we wiss ye noo tae be.

And that’s what bothers you, isn’t it? It’s not that you think people will object to same-sex couples getting married.

It’s that you know people won’t.

There are upwards of 200,000 Mass-going Catholics in Scotland, according to polling data. During the Scottish government’s consultation last year, the Catholic Church’s media office in Glasgow sent out 200,000 postcards to parishes across Scotland, each one with a message against gay marriage and a space for signature and address.

Only 28,000 of those postcards were signed and returned. Upwards of 170,000 Mass-going Catholics looked at those postcards inviting them to vote against marriage for their friends and neighbours, and said:


You say a referendum should be held because of the “intense public interest”. That is not, in and of itself, a valid reason for holding a referendum.

More to the point; why are you poking your neb into this, Cardinal?

The Catholic Church has made clear that no same-sex couple will be allowed to marry in a Catholic church. That’s absolutely the Church’s right. The Catholic Church is not a democracy, and a religious marriage is a matter for the religious body to decide on, not just for the couple who want to get married. The right of the Catholic Church to reject any couple who don’t meet Catholic standards for marriage is protected by custom, tradition, law, and the universal declaration of human rights.

That said, it’s therefore not one bit your concern whether the Scottish government legislates to allow same-sex couples to marry in a registry office, and even less your concern whether this legislation allows other religious bodies and the Humanist Society to wed couples in accordance with their faith.

You don’t have a right to tell a Unitarian minister or a Quaker meeting how they can and can’t conduct their faith. That’s none of your business. That’s why we have freedom of religion: the same right that allows the Catholic Church to say No to same-sex marriages allows Liberal and Reform Judaism to say Yes.

Cardinal: you can have your referendum on civil rights and freedom of religion in Scotland, the day that we have a referendum to decide if the Pope is Catholic.

Does a bear?

Update, 4:09pm: The three consulations in devolution’s history which got most responses were, in reverse order: the independence referendum, the same-sex marriage referendum, and, in first place: Smoking in public places.

Well, Cardinal? Should we have a referendum on where smokers are allowed to light up?

Update, 17th July

At a Cabinet meeting today, the Scottish government discussed equal marriage. A spokesman said afterwards

“This is an important issue and it is right that cabinet takes the time to get both the principle and the detail of the decision right. During the discussion, recent calls for a referendum on the subject were carefully considered. However, cabinet views this as an issue of conscience not constitution.

“Given that if a bill is brought forward it should in the view of the Scottish government be determined by a free vote, cabinet has concluded that a referendum would not be appropriate.

“Cabinet has now asked a cabinet sub-committee, led by the deputy first minister, to further examine some particular issues of detail before a final decision is reached. We remain committed to publishing the consultation responses and our clear decision on the way forward before the end of this month.”

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Filed under Human Rights, LGBT Equality, Religion

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